Blazers starting anew

Photo by Jim PetersMarquette girls basketball players do a passing drill during the first practice of the season Monday at the Scholl Center. The program graduated almost all of the team that won back-to-back Class A state titles.

MICHIGAN CITY — As Ally McConnell walked into the Scholl Center for the first day of girls basketball practice Monday, the Marquette senior had to look hard to find familiar faces.

OK, there's coach Katie Collignon. Yeah, there's Ryleigh Grott from volleyball. Let's see, anyone else?

"It's totally different, not having everyone there like it used to be," McConnell said. "It's a new challenge. It's going to be a new experience with my new teammates."

New is indeed the key word for the Blazers, who, for the sake of review, won the last two Class A state championships and graduated everybody not named McConnell.

Gone are Indiana All-Stars Emma and Sophia Nolan. Ditto fellow starters Claire Salyer, Emmery Joseph and Morgan Crook and backup guard Dia Rallings.

"We had four, five college basketball players on the court. It's definitely going to be different," Collignon said. "I walked in three years ago with a much different group. Last year, we had very specific goals. In my mind, the goals aren't going to be as specific, not anymore lofty, not as exact when you walk in with 12 returners on a 12-person team. There are big shoes to fill. There are so many new kids. It's going to be a bigger learning curve. I'm really excited to see what we actually have and go from there. I'm optimistic. Hey, it's day one."

While Collignon's all in with athletes playing multiple sports, the fact that her former teams were more basketball specific, the pre-season skills work that previously took place in August and September has to be done on the fly now.

"It's one of those years where we had a lot of girls who played a fall sport, so I really haven't seen a lot of them yet," she said. "We have to build that base quicker than in the past. Ally's the only one who's been with me since I've here, so all the things I like that everyone was used to it -- we run to get water, we don't walk, we are on time -- the little things, basics took for granted new in the past, I have to teach, so I'm going to have my learning curve the first couple weeks. We only have 11 practice days before we play, so we've got to be ready to go."

McConnell, whose one basket accounts for the only two points returning from the state championship game,  certainly will find herself in a new role as the sole veteran voice.

"I kind of expected it to be like that," she said. "Four years there, I know what happened. Coach K explained more things to the newer players instead of going straight into more drills. I'd give a little heads up to do this, do that. Everyone's probably looking to me as the only senior on the team. They'll be asking me questions, so it's up to me to try my best to help everyone out."

For Collignon, part of the fun lies in the unknown, the largely blank canvas in front of both her and the players.

"Obviously, we're expecting a lot of good things from (Ally)," she said. "Ryleigh was a great JV player who stepped up to varsity a couple times. There are JV returners who have been in the program the last two years. It's exciting for the younger girls who were on younger team or had lesser roles. They finally get their time to shine, Hey, it's my chance, I want to get better. It's a cool experience for everybody involved. At that point, anything can happen. I'm going to put it in their hands, see what they want to do, what they want to make of the season."

Though tangible goals will obviously be different, some things will remain the same.

"I don't want to bite my tongue very often," Collignon said. "I'm not going to change the way I coach, my personality, my expectations. I don't ever want to change those. I'll challenge the girls to maybe match that. I promise, we'll work hard, play good defense, good team basketball. That's what I expect. I have to make sure they know that and believe that. If they're willing to work, work together, just play good team basketball, there's no limit on what any team can do at this level."

Knowing the makeup of her team would be drastically different, Collignon adjusted the schedule to reflect a 1A/2A-sized school rather than the 4A-caliber slate of the past group.

"I want them to have a chance to make their season more successful," she said. "We want them to have a fun year, so everybody can enjoy it. It's probably the best timed out schedule, seven games, eight games, eight games. It's a good balance with days of practice."

McConnell is anxious to see what the season brings.

"I want to have fun with my new teammates and win as many games as we can," she said. "We're going to win some and lose some. Hopefully, we can win more than we lose."

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